Breaking the rules

Technology | Sat 28 Mar | Author – Anne Whelton Sarah Wood

On a recent visit to Dublin, co-founder of Unruly, Sarah Wood spoke to Anne Whelton about securing vital VC investment for fledging tech firms and Unruly’s impressive growth.

If you’ve ever seen roller-skating babies, singing kitties or moon-walking ponies on the internet, then chances are these are the result of the creative genius behind marketing technology company Unruly.

Founded in 2006, Unruly is a video ad tech company and a leader in programmatic platform for social video advertising. The team at Unruly are driven to ensure that brands get their online video campaigns watched and shared across the web. “Essentially, we make video ads famous online,” Unruly co-founder and COO, Sarah Wood says.

Differentiated by a unique data set comprising 1.3 trillion video views and analysing 116 million shares per day, Unruly algorithmically predicts content shareability and targets custom audiences across video, mobile and native ad formats, which according to Wood comes with guaranteed viewability and brand safety across all devices to an audience of 1.27 billion monthly unique users.

Unruly employs 190 people across 14 offices in 10 countries, with regional HQs in London, New York and Singapore. As well as receiving a number of accolades recognising its technical innovation and product quality since its launch – from the likes of Digiday, The Sunday Times, Braves – in 2014, Unruly was named one of the ‘Best Companies to Work For’ by The Sunday Times; received kudos as the ‘Best Digital Ad Ops Team’ from AOP; and was crowned the UK’s second fastest growing tech company by Deloitte.

A seed is sown

Given its fast-paced growth and impressive global expansion in less than 10 years, does Wood still recall the initial seed idea forming? “When the idea of viral videos started to take off in 2006 we were immediately intrigued by how powerful a video could become, and the impact it could have on viewers,” she recalls.

“This was around the time that web 2.0 was breaking, social networks and social content were beginning to take off and there was a lot of excitement around the social web and how it was going to revolutionise, not just information, but the way we communicate with each other.

“The web was no longer just an information highway but a social destination,” Wood says. “There was so much content coming online and already it was difficult to sort through content and find the hottest videos that were getting people talking. So we built a blog-scanning engine and created the Viral Video Chart to track and rank the most shared videos on the social web. It ranks videos by shares rather than views. This is a more genuine measure of success than views and an accurate reflection of what people are actually talking about.”

The web was no longer just an information highway but a social destination.”

Creating contagious content

According to Wood, within hours of launching Viral Video Chart, brands were contacting Unruly to see how they could get their ads into the chart.

Instantly, they knew there was an appetite from brands that wanted to create and distribute contagious content. “That’s when we created the first scalable social video distribution platform, which launched in 2007 and which has delivered over 10,000+ campaigns to date,” Woods adds.

Deal breakers

Unruly was on a roll; and it seemed the start-ups luck was really in when it hit the jackpot in 2012 and successfully closed a $25m series A investment round.

However, while this investment proved to be a significant milestone in Unruly’s journey, Wood warns other entrepreneurs that these things don’t happen overnight. “It was a significant investment of management time for the six months leading up to the close of our $25m round – but well worth the time and energy,” Wood says. “Founders have a tendency to underestimate how long it takes to close a round – I know I did anyway,” she adds.

Equally, when it comes to giving sound advice to other tech start-ups who are looking to attract investors, Wood has these pearls of wisdom: “You don’t want to be doing this in a hurry and you don’t want to be doing this as a last resort, so even before you feel the time is right to seek external funding, it’s a great idea to get to know some of the VCs in advance so you can evaluate your options and make sure you have good access to the most promising investors when the time is right.”

Wood is also quick to add: “I realise this may seem like a ‘nice-to-have’ when you’re so busy doing a million other things, but VCs are inundated with start-up pitches and it isn’t a level playing field.”

Attracting investment

According to the entrepreneur, if you have personally met and impressed a VC with your company vision and prospects, they’re much more likely to follow your progress and be keen to chat to you when you’re ready to reach out to discuss the next stage.

“Know what you want to use the funding for, and be clear with yourself and your leadership team as to how you will – and won’t – deploy new money that comes into the business,” Wood explains. “Make sure the whole founding team understands and is in agreement as to why it’s time for your start-up to raise money,” she adds.

For Unruly, it was a case of wanting to accelerate international expansion and ensuring the company had adequate working capital in the bank to extend the product set. Wood agrees that none of this would have been achieved without crucial investment at a pivotal moment in the company’s evolution.

Intuitively innovative

Not a firm to take a back seat, Unruly is constantly working on new innovations and products. “We’re an agile tech outfit, with new projects and products constantly being tested and brought to market,” says Wood. “Native video for mobile is a big focus for us in 2015 as mobile becomes the first screen for video consumers. We are also working on expanding our global footprint, particularly in the US and Asia Pacific.”

Although Unruly is more widely regarded as a market leader in the UK and US, in Ireland the video ad tech company is making its presence felt and the company has been running campaigns here since 2008. “We have seen a growing appetite for social video content here. It’s something smart marketers in Ireland are really starting to pick up on.

According to IAB Ireland, the first half of 2014 saw record 40% growth in digital ad spend – particularly mobile – across the entire country.”

The Evian Roller Babies campaign

The Evian Roller Babies campaign

High five

In terms of the future, Wood says the opportunities are endless, and the potential to scale the business is equally positive. “This time five years ago there were five of us in a leaky office. In five years time, we’ll be recognised internationally as the global leader for social video ad technology,” she projects.

According to the dynamic entrepreneur, looking ahead is key to success in such a rapidly evolving media landscape. “We’ll continue to use our proprietary technology, unique data set and continuous innovation to lead on new approaches, spearhead best practices and help brands reach audiences wherever they’re watching or sharing videos in five years time.”

Quick fire round with: Sarah Wood

Predictions for tech’s ‘next big thing’?

Recent research predicts that over the next six years we will see an exponential increase in the use of connected ‘things’ – network or internet-enabled devices.

How big is big?

It’s estimated there are around five billion users of connected devices now. This is expected to rise to 25 billion – or three for every person on the planet – by the end of 2020.

What does this mean for business?

This presents a huge marketing opportunity for brands, and they will need to navigate the opportunities and challenges presented by wearable technology and smart appliances.

You’ve described yourself as an ‘accidental entrepreneur’. How so?

I’ve come through academia and although I still run a course in online video culture at Cambridge, I left academia in 2006 after my second son was born.

How was the move from academia to running a tech start-up?

You’d be surprised how many other entrepreneurs come to business via education, research or other industries. There’s a myth of the ‘born entrepreneur’ who has been deal-making since the age of five. It’s about time this myth was debunked!

What’s the best thing about running a tech start-up?

Controlling your own environment, and being able to create a culture where men and women feel they have a safe and supportive environment – where you can fulfill their potential and bring the kids into work during half-term holidays if necessary.